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Making Racial Integration Real

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Mural from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada

Growing up, I went to a small parochial school in Northern California, that had about 80 total high schoolers. Two were black. Two were Asian siblings. One was Hispanic, but only half. I didn’t realize I had a limited understanding of diversity until I entered the wider world as an adult, when I had an increased yearning to interact with people who were different from me. To hear different narratives. To challenge my thinking.

Part of that has been remedied by living in other countries. But a bigger fix has been moving to Washington, DC, which is one of the most racially and socioeconomically diverse cities in the nation. DC is over 50% black, followed by some 38% white, with other ethnicities making up the rest, but the numbers don’t account for the vast diversity of nationalities that are represented, too. Immigrants from countries I’ve only seen on the map rub shoulders with residents who marched for Civil Rights in the ’60s, as well as old money families whose British ancestors settled the area and never left. Before moving here three years ago, it felt like DC would quench my thirst for diversity, and help patina some of the embarrassing whiteness I sometimes feel. I don’t pretend to be a social chameleon, but most of time, I feel like I can navigate class and race differences graciously.

But then, this week, I took my kids to a neighborhood playgroup. I expected to find kinship among the other attendees, who were in the same modest area of DC as me, with kids under the age of 3 like mine. There certainly was diverse attendance: The host was Filipina-American, a handful of Hispanic moms and nannies were both represented, and white and black moms intermingled, along with a German family. There was a wonderful, unguarded friendliness all around, but interestingly, when conversations got going, like went with like. I felt ever so slightly irrelevant talking to the nannies, even though I speak Spanish, and to two black moms of daughters, even though gender usually seems irrelevant to conversations about toddlers.

Race and class divides are such weighted topics, I don’t dare overstate or overgeneralize this single experience, especially since I didn’t connect with any mom, and the others may have already known each other.

But when I saw the headline Beyond Integration: How Teachers Can Encourage Cross-Racial Friendship, it struck a chord. The article describes fairly consistent research about junior high students decreasing cross-race friendships and increasing same-race friendships as they go through adolescence. Although there are valid reasons for this pattern, namely, identity construction and seeking acceptance, there are also valid reasons for delaying or inhibiting the effect to the extent possible. In the words of the teacher from the article, “There’s a lot of value in actually getting to know different people—how they work and what their values are and what their experiences are.”

How do you stretch the thinking or shake up the habits of your students when it comes to diversity?

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